Texts: Multiple W10th Sunday after Pentecost
Singing through the Seasons: The Church Year in Song
Perhaps you were confused or even alarmed when you came in this morning and saw the unusually large number of songs posted on the hymn board. Trust me, there’s no cause for concern – we’re going to be doing something a little bit different this morning. A couple of times in the past, Pastor has held special services that took us through the different parts of the Divine Service step by step, explaining what each part of the liturgy means and where it’s found in the Bible. And as we did that, we saw that there’re a lot of very good theological reasons for the following the sequence of events that we do each week. The structure of the Divine Service itself is telling us a story – the story of our salvation in Jesus Christ. More than that, we see that we are actually participating in the story of salvation and interacting with the Lord Jesus as the service unfolds. We understand that as we worship, Jesus is really here among us in his Word and Sacraments bringing us the very forgiveness, spiritual healing, and life eternal that we’re hearing, speaking, and singing about. Jesus – his teaching, his righteous life, his death for sin, and his resurrection – these are the very content of our order of service.
But if we were to step back a bit to get a broader view, we’d see that each weekly Sunday service is part of a much larger order of service that’s going on. It’s the one that unfolds throughout the church year. And just as each Sunday’s order of worship tells the story of salvation in Jesus, so also, on a much grander scale, do the various parts and seasons of the church year tell that same story – but we rarely see the whole thing at once because we’re too close to it. We live day to day, not year to year; and so it can be a case of not seeing the forest through the trees.
So what we’re going to do this morning is stand back and take a look at the bigger picture. We’ll look at the church year from start to finish and actually sing our way through it, using hymns that capture the various themes and moods of each season. And hopefully when we’re done, you’ll have a greater appreciation for what’s been handed down to us as one of the church’s treasures: the order of the church year. And we’ll see how it too delivers to us Jesus and the salvation we have in him.
The best place to start is at the beginning. And as you probably know, the church year doesn’t quite follow the calendar year, which begins on January first. Instead, the church is ahead of the game, and begins its year late in November with the season called Advent – a word that literally means “before the coming”—of Christ, that is. It’s considered a penitential season, a time of repentance and spiritual preparation in which we mentally make the jump back to the time of the Old Testament when God’s people were eagerly awaiting the coming of the promised Savior. One of the key figures of Advent is John the Baptist, who is in a very real sense the last of the Old Testament prophets. His “hellfire and brimstone” preaching is meant to terrify sinners and make them despair of saving themselves. He called people to repentance, and, baptizing them in the Jordan for the forgiveness of their sins, he pointed them to the One who was coming after him – the One who would set them free from sin forever. Some people thought John himself might be the Savior. But when they asked him, he denied it. He said instead that he was the one
Written [about] in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“The voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’” (Luke 3:4-6)
On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry (LSB #344)
The rather sober mood of Advent is completely overturned when, on Christmas Eve, we celebrate with joy the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Savior – his own Son born into this world as a human infant. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) We hear again the wonderful story of Joseph and Mary on their trip to Bethlehem; and how “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7) Then we join the shepherds watching over their flocks at night who were startled to see a bright angel who told them what God had done in nearby Bethlehem. With them we hear the multitude of angels in heavenly chorus. And then we go with the shepherds to see this thing that God has made known to us. We all have our favorite Christmas Carols. All of them express our joy at the Savior’s birth; but the best ones – like the one we’re about to sing – also tell us why he was born: “that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth” by his death for sin and his resurrection.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (LSB #380)
The twelve short days of Christmas come to an end with the arrival of the sages from the east who, led by the star, have come to worship the infant King. It’s the beginning of the season we call the Epiphany, which means “the shining forth”. The idea is that the Light of Christ begins to shine brighter and brighter; and, as it spreads forth pushing back the darkness, more people are being encompassed by it by coming to know Jesus – who he really is. What begins as the dim light of a distant star attracting only a few wandering scholars really starts to show forth at his Baptism in the Jordan. Then the voice of the Father announces to all, “This is my beloved Son”. And as the season unfolds, we follow the early ministry of Jesus as he makes himself known: his teaching, his miracles, and his gathering of the disciples who will later be his witnesses to the world. Soon large crowds are walking in the Light of Christ. The season culminates with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, where, just briefly, his glorious inner light literally breaks out of his human form. For that brief moment we, with the chosen three disciples, get a complete vision of who it is we’re really dealing with in this man, Jesus. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ makes his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Songs of Thankfulness and Praise (LSB #394)
The disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain of light and glory wanted to remain there on its lofty heights; but Jesus said it was necessary first to go down into the shadows of the world below. He knew he had to keep an appointment on a different, much darker mount outside the city of Jerusalem. Thus begins the penitential season of Lent: forty days of preparation and prayer that prepare us for the sacrifice of the Son of God. It’s a time of serious introspection and reflection on our many sins that made his death necessary. The mood of the season is even darker than Advent. Then we prepared our hearts to receive the Son of God in the flesh. In Lent we’re walking with Jesus on his journey to the cross. We follow in his footsteps carrying our own crosses, feeling the weight of our sins and their bitter consequences. All the while, we’re looking forward to the relief we will experience when we – like Simon of Cyrene – can set them down and be free of the curse. We who are weary and heavily laden set our loads down at Jesus feet, and he takes the entire burden of all our sin and shame on himself. He alone bears the entire load.
Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain (LSB #435)
Lent comes to its dark end in what we call Holy Week. It’s begins Palm Sunday with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem amid the cheers and praises of the crowd. But there is increasing controversy with hostile religious leaders. Before long the fickle crowd realizes that Jesus is not the kind of king they want. On Maundy Thursday, we join the disciples in the upper room as they celebrate the last Passover with Jesus – the meal that commemorates the deliverance of God’s people from bondage by the blood of lambs and the death of a nation’s firstborn. It’s there that Jesus initiates his own Holy Supper, telling his disciples that he himself is the both the Firstborn of God and the Lamb that all the previous Passover observances had foreshadowed. From the upper room we go with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane where, in anguish of mind, body, and soul, he pours out his heart to his Father in prayer. Soon afterward we see him betrayed by Judas with a kiss. He’s taken into custody. He’s tried first by the Jewish religious leaders, and then he’s handed over to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. There the crowds so who recently hailed Jesus as their king now, on Good Friday, demand his death. But we dare not look at that crowd and fail to miss our own faces in it. For we too call Jesus “king” and honor him with our praises. And yet, every time we consciously commit a sin, we betray him and effectively call for his death. Then we can only say with St. Paul, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who can deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25)
Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (LSB #451)
The dark solemnity of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday that marks Christ’s rest in the tomb is abruptly broken Easter morning. Though we know the story, every year it comes to us as a joyous surprise. For first we join the sad procession of the women to the tomb. The mood is still quite dark. But then they find the open tomb. They’re wondering what it means when suddenly two angels in glowing white robes appear. One of them asks with a hint of rebuke in his voice, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He’s not here! He has risen!” (Luke 24:5) They flee from the tomb still wondering “Could it be true? Is it possible?” But before long Jesus himself begins to appear to people: first to Mary Magdalene, then to Peter and the Emmaus disciples, and finally to the whole group of assembled disciples. Through their eyes we too become witnesses to his resurrection – and we share their overwhelming joy. And in the following forty days we join them in walking with resurrected Lord Jesus as he explains what it was all about. He opens our minds to understand God’s plan and purpose in sending him as our Savior from sin – not to establish an earthly, political kingdom – a restored nation of Israel; but to build an everlasting kingdom in holiness and righteousness, one that encompasses people from every nation and race – all who trust in Jesus and who with him are made victors over death, hell, and Satan. And having seen the risen Jesus and understood what he accomplished, we, with the disciples are made his witnesses to the world to declare his truth – as we do now in the words of a hymn written by the first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther.
He’s Risen, He’s Risen, Christ Jesus the Lord (LSB #480)
The season of Easter lasts exactly forty-nine days and includes, on the fortieth day, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Thus ends what is roughly one half of the church year, the part we call the “festival season” because it takes us through the major parts of the life and ministry of Jesus. The second half of the year that follows is known as “the time of the church”. It’s the part of the year in which we ask that good Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” Jesus lived for us. Jesus died for us. Jesus was raised and ascended for us. Okay. What does that mean for us now? Where do we go from here? And how should we live in this present age and in this fallen world knowing that we are heirs of the age and kingdom to come? These are the sorts of questions we deal with as we move forward into the long season that begins on the fiftieth day after Easter, the day of Pentecost.
We begin by celebrating God’s gift to us of the Holy Spirit, who is sent by the Lord to illumine our hearts and minds to understand and believe all the things Jesus continues to teach us through his Word. We gather with the disciples on that first Christian Pentecost when the Spirit fell upon them with power – and we understand that he gives to us also the same power to believe, to understand, and to bear witness to Christ just like they did. And in the weeks and months that follow, we concentrate on growing in Christian faith and virtue, reviewing such themes as the basic nuts and bolts of the faith, the Word and Sacraments of the church, growing in love and service for others, and hanging tough in times of adversity. Throughout it all we detect a certain pilgrim theme – the idea that we are passing through this world on our way to a higher goal, just as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. That’s where we’re heading in the fullest sense of the term: the eternal Promised Land. The point is we need to make progress – moving forward instead of backward. “Therefore … let us throw off everything that hinders our progress and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked our for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that your will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
(The offering will be received as the hymn is sung)
To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray (LSB #768)
(Stand for the prayers. The worship leader offers petitions as appropriate for the church at large, the concerns of the congregation, and for the specific needs of individuals. The prayers conclude with all joining in the Lord’s Prayer, following which the congregation may be seated.)
As the long season of Pentecost draws to its close, we note that the days are getting shorter and the once green earth is turning brown. The harvest is nearing completion. It’s a reminder that this age will one day come to its final end and the Lord will send his angels to harvest the earth, dividing the wheat and tares. And so it’s fitting that the last several weeks of the Pentecost season are dedicated to such topics as the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and life eternal. It serves as a reminder to all of us that we need to be prepared at all times, for no one knows the day or hour of our Lord’s return.
The Day Is Surely Drawing Near (LSB #508)
Thus the church year ends more or less where it began, with the people of God looking with expectation and hope for the coming of our Savior and King in the flesh. The difference is that we are all a little closer to the goal – both in time and, hopefully, in spiritual readiness to receive the inheritance the Lord has planned for us in glory with all his saints. There we shall all stand before his throne and sing his praises evermore. Therefore look up, for our redemption draws near. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.
(The worship leader blesses the congregation)
L: The Lord Almighty bless us, defend us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.
Sing with All the Saints in Glory (LSB #671)